The new head of Wisconsin's Department of Veterans Affairs says she will no longer rely on veterans nursing homes to fund the agency's programs.
Secretary-designee Mary Kolar, appointed by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers in December, said she is actively seeking new streams of funding to pay for the state's benefits programs and its health care employees. The state has consistently funded veterans agency administrative salaries and some programs with money generated from the three nursing homes it runs.
Those homes are the Wisconsin Veterans Home at King, the Wisconsin Veterans Home at Chippewa Falls and the Wisconsin Veterans Home at Union Grove.
"That is not a long-term solution... we can't continue on the path that we were," Kolar said in an interview with the Cap Times this week. "I want to find a more solid program to ensure a long-term strategy that we can fund our programs."
Tens of millions of dollars have been transferred from the veterans homes over the last decade, and the state is set to transfer millions more through 2020-21.
Both political parties have endorsed the practice, but Kolar, who served in the U.S. Navy for 28 years, says it is not sustainable, though stopped short of saying she would halt the transfers completely. She said she doesn't look at the issue as completely black and white, noting that if the homes had the resources they needed and a surplus was available to meet a need elsewhere the department, nursing home funds could be used as a band-aid.
"But I do know I can't depend on revenue from homes to fund all of DVA’s programs. That’s what I feel strongly about," she said.
Kolar, who served on the Dane County Board of Supervisors before being appointed, said she is working with other cabinet secretaries to find ways to recruit and retain workers who directly care for nursing home residents. She said she is collaborating with the Department of Workforce Development and the Department of Corrections, which has also struggled to retain staff.
The Wisconsin Veterans Home at King is "a great place," Kolar said. "My goal is to ensure (that) people who are eligible to go there know that this is a phenomenal place to work and at the same time we're working on, 'OK, how can we make sure our employees are fairly compensated and want to continue to work at King?'"
Kolar said she has been interviewing candidates to fill a veterans homes administrator position to help retain staff at the homes. The position, which requires an expertise in health care administration, has been vacant for more than a year through much of her predecessor, former Secretary Dan Zimmerman's, tenure.
Zimmerman was appointed by former Gov. Scott Walker in 2017 following the resignation of Secretary John Scocos. Scocos left the role following a 2016 Cap Times investigation that highlighted allegations of dismal care, medical errors and prolonged staffing shortages at the King veterans home.
Kolar said she has also met with state lawmakers of both parties to discuss extending funding for the agency's homeless veterans program, which serves each county in the state. State workers with the program proactively reach out to veterans to connect them with several services including mental health help, substance abuse treatment and job training.
Kolar said her chief priority is increasing awareness among veterans about the benefits available to them. Though she has to deal with decisions made in the past, she won't dwell there.
"I just want to emphasize that I am concentrating on the future, not my predecessor," she said. "My focus is on the future."